On the strength of a defense that has allowed the third least points in the NFL through four weeks, the Arizona Cardinals have rolled out to a surprising 4-0 start. But if they want that run to turn into an NFC West title or playoff spot -- heck, if they want to get to 5-0 Thursday night in St. Louis -- the run game will have to perk up soon.
Arizona has averaged just 68 yards per game on the ground thus far, good for 29th-best in the league. The Cardinals mustered a mere 28 yards rushing last week and, had it not been for the defense forcing four turnovers, likely would have lost at home to the Dolphins.
So far, struggling to establish a running game has not come back to bite Arizona. With a schedule the rest of the way that includes two games with San Francisco, trips to Minnesota, Green Bay, Atlanta, New York (to play the Jets) and Seattle, plus visits from the Lions and Bears, sooner of later, that lack of success on the ground will haunt the Cardinals.
"It's a big point of emphasis for us and we know that we're going to have to have it especially come later on in the season," Kolb said. "That's a big part of the game as people start to get banged up and we get later on in the cold weather months."
The man in the spotlight is Ryan Williams, who is the unquestioned No. 1 back in the desert with Beanie Wells on IR for at least a few more weeks. Williams was held to 26 yards on 13 carries by Miami in Week 4.
Asking him to be a go-to guy is a gamble by the Cardinals, too -- Williams missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury, and only weeks ago returned to the playing field. He made his first career start in Week 3 against the Eagles (13 carries, 83 yards). There's not much of a safety net behind him, either; last week's backup, William Powell, picked up two yards on his first two NFL carries against the Dolphins.
So the question is: Can Williams get the job done?
Without him, the Cardinals will continue to find themselves asking for production from a passing game that has been up and down, at best, with Kolb and John Skelton splitting time at quarterback.
And this is not a new problem in Arizona. Last year's Cardinals team finished 24th on the ground, and that's the franchise's high-water mark since ranking No. 22 in 2004. From 2005-10, the Cardinals never finished better than 29th in the run game.
Kurt Warner's presence and the Cardinals' resulting aerial attack helped mask that issue for a few seasons, including one that resulted in a Super Bowl run.
Neither Kolb nor Skelton appears ready to take over games the way that Warner could. Which means that, unless the overachieving Cardinals defense maintains its current pace, the offense is going to have to find other ways to stay the course over the season's final 12 games. Getting Williams going on Thursday in St. Louis would be a major step in the right direction.